Audio news April 4th to April 10th, 2010

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news April 4th to April 10th, 2010.


Stela honors Roman Emperor as Egyptian Pharaoh


In our first story from the Temple of Isis at Philae (FEE-lay) in Egypt, scholars translating a Roman victory stela (STEEL-ah) have discovered Emperor Octavian Augustus’ name inscribed in a cartouche, an honor normally reserved for an Egyptian pharaoh.  Octavian’s forces defeated Cleopatra and Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, and captured Alexandria soon afterwards.  Octavian ruled Egypt after the death of Cleopatra, but historians haven’t believed he ruled as an officially crowned Egyptian pharaoh.  However, according to Professor Martina Minas-Nerpel, part of the team translating the stela, the inscription clearly indicates that the Egyptians treated Augustus as a pharaoh.  Professor Minas-Nerpel believes Egyptian priests had insisted on this honor, and that it was in Octavian’s interests to comply.  The priests had to have an acting pharaoh; otherwise, their understanding of the world would have collapsed.  The only possible pharaoh was Octavian himself, notes Minas-Nerpel.  For Octavian, pleasing the priests would have been crucial to keeping the province in order.

The stela, dating to 29 BC, celebrates the end of the Ptolemaic kings and the defeat of the “king of the Ethiopians.”  Written in three languages--Egyptian hieroglyphics, Latin and Greek-- the stela researchers have known about it for roughly 100 years, but translation of the hieroglyphic text has been difficult as the inscription is no longer clear.  Previous work had suggested the cartouche contained the name of Gaius Cornelius Gallus.  Gallus, a Roman soldier and poet appointed by Octavian to run Egypt as a province, administered Egypt until the Emperor Augustus recalled him to Rome in 27 BC.  

This stela is not the only example of the name of a Roman ruler written in a cartouche.  Professor Minas-Nerpel cites another example of Octavian's name written in a cartouche, found on a gateway dating to 30 BC, on the island of Kalabsha in southern Egypt.

Lost city found in central Mexico


In Mexico, a Colorado State University archaeologist and his team have discovered the ruins of an ancient urban center in the heart of the Purépecha (poor AY pay cha) Empire in the Lake Pátzcuaro (POTS-kwa-ro) Basin, located in the central state of Michoacán.  (Mee-cho-a-CAN).

According to Christopher Fisher, associate professor of Anthropology, much of this settlement is similar to a modern-day suburb with hundreds of small house mounds where ordinary families lived and carried out activities.  From one square-kilometer of the settlement, Fisher and his team were able to map more than 1,300 architectural features.  These included house mounds, room blocks, buildings, small temples, plazas, agricultural features and a pyramid.  By today’s standards, this urban center seems small; however, by documenting these ruins, the team is helping anthropologists identify different aspects of ancient cities.

At the time of European contact, the Purépecha Empire, also known as the Tarascan Empire, controlled much of western Mexico with a jointly fortified frontier shared with their rivals, the Aztecs to the east.  Dating to AD 1000-1520, the settlement may be as large as 5 square kilometers.  Preliminary findings suggest the pinnacle of the occupation occurred just before the development of the Purépecha Empire, further indicating that results from the study may yield new clues regarding the empire’s formation.

The Lake Pátzcuaro Basin was the geopolitical core of the empire with a dense population, centralized settlement systems, engineered environment and a socially classed society.  The archaeological team has documented only about one-fifth of the entire site and will be returning this summer for more mapping and research.  Using handheld computers as well as GPS receivers, they swiftly and precisely mapped every cultural feature they encountered.  The researchers used extensive data gathered from surveys and mapping to explore relationships among climatic fluctuation, landscape change and the formation of complex societies.

Along with the discovery of the settlement, Fisher discovered six other previously unknown settlements and hundreds of agricultural terraces.  This is a multidisciplinary research project that includes archaeologists, geologists and geographers from the United States and Mexico.

Assyrian treaty tablet records ancient treaty


Shifting now to southeastern Turkey, a cache of cuneiform tablets unearthed last summer by a team led by a University of Toronto archaeologist contains a largely intact Assyrian treaty from the early 7th Century BC.  According to Timothy Harrison, professor of Near Eastern archaeology and director of the university’s Tayinat (TIE-i-naht) Archaeological Project (TAP), the tablet records a treaty, or covenant, between Esarhaddon, (ee sahr-HAD-un) King of the Assyrian Empire and a secondary ruler who acknowledged Assyrian power.  

The involved parties confirmed the treaty in 672 BC at elaborate ceremonies held in the Assyrian royal city of Nimrud.  In the text, the secondary ruler swears to recognize the authority of Esarhaddon's successor, his son Ashurbanipal.  (As·shur·BA·ni·pal).  The Assyrian ruler and the secondary ruler apparently wrote the treaty to secure Ashurbanipal's accession to the throne and avoid the political crisis that happened at the start of his father's reign.  Esarhaddon came to power when his brothers assassinated their father, Sennacherib (sen-NAWK-er-ib).

The 43 by 28 centimeter tablet, known as the Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon, contains about 650 lines and is in a very fragile state.  It will take months of further work before the document will be fully legible.  Harrison added that these tablets are like a very complex puzzle, involving hundreds of pieces, with some missing.  
The researchers hope to gather information about Assyria's imperial relations with the west during a critical period, the early 7th Century BC.  It marked the rise of the Phrygians and other rival powers in highland Anatolia, now modern-day Turkey, along the northwestern frontier of the Assyrian empire.  It coincides with the divided monarchy of Biblical Israel, as well as an era of increased contact between the Levantine peoples of the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt and the Greeks of the Aegean world.

Archaeologists unearthed the cache of tablets, dating back to the Iron Age, in August 2009 during excavations at the site of an ancient temple at Tell Tayinat.  They also uncovered a wealth of religious items, including gold, bronze and iron implements, libation vessels and ornately decorated ritual objects.  


Syrian dig reveals prehistoric town life


In our final story, we move just a short distance over to northern Syria, where excavations are revealing the way society looked just before dawn of urban civilization in the Middle East.  Thirty-one acres in size, Tell Zeidan rests where the Balikh River joins the Euphrates River, a location at the crossroads of major trade routes across ancient Mesopotamia that followed the course of the Euphrates River valley.  According to Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago and a leader of the excavations, Tell Zeidan may have been one of the largest Ubaid temple towns in northern Mesopotamia.  Additionally, it was as large or larger than any previously known contemporary Ubaid towns in the southern alluvial lowlands of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is today southern Iraq.  

Researchers are easily able to access the prehistoric layer of Tell Zeidan, immediately beneath the modern-day ground surface, because the site was unoccupied after about 4,000 BC.  Stein notes this means that, for the first time, archaeologists can excavate broad areas of an Ubaid temple town to understand how a pre-urban community actually functioned in the sixth and fifth millennia BC.  The new excavations reveal the emergence of an elite that possessed the political power necessary for communities to move from self-sufficient village life to societies dependent on trade and capable of acquiring luxury goods.  

The two-millennium-long occupation spans four key periods: two phases of the late Copper Age on top, the Ubaid period in the middle and the Halaf period at the bottom.  The excavations so far show that the transitions between these periods were peaceful, including the period in which the influence of the Ubaid culture spread from its south Mesopotamian homeland up the Euphrates River into north Syria.  

One of the most remarkable finds was a stone stamp seal depicting a deer.  The seal is unusually large, measuring about two inches by two-and-a-half inches.  The seal, carved from a red stone not native to the area, is similar in design to a seal found 185 miles to the east near Mosul in northern Iraq.  The existence of very elaborate seals with near-identical motifs at such widely distant sites suggests that high-ranking elites were taking leadership positions across a very broad region, and those dispersed elites shared a common set of symbols and perhaps even a common ideology of superior social status.  Ancients employed seals as stamps to indicate ownership of goods in the period before writing.  

The team also unearthed obsidian blades and flaking debris from the production of the blades.  Based on chemical composition of the high-quality volcanic glass, it originated 250 miles away in what is now Turkey.  The people in Tell Zeidan also had access to copper ore from sources near modern-day Diyarbakir (dee-YAHR-bahk-er), Turkey, about 185 to 250 miles away.  Those materials, smelted at Tell Zeidan, produced metal tools that represent the most advanced technology of the fifth millennium BC.  People must have transported the material on their backs, as Tell Zeidan flourished at a time before donkey domestication.  The wealth of the community came from irrigation-based agriculture, trade and manufacturing.  

Additionally the team found flint sickle blades everywhere.  The people used bitumen (BIT-yu-min), a tar substance obtained from pits 43 miles away, to secure the blades onto handles.  
Matching their possession of advanced technology, a wealthy ruling class and individual identification by stamp seals, the people at Tell Zeidan also built large public structures of mud bricks.

That wraps up the news for this week!
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I'm Laura Kelley and I'll see you next week!